At the end of April, the leading UK supermarkets signed up to the Plastics Pledge, which aims to have all plastic packaging capable of being re-used, recycled or composed by 2025. In itself this is good, but it also gives a snapshot of the value of the Single Market, and the other side of those maligned “regulations”
Few people can be unaware of the growing publicity around plastic in the environment. It‘s great that our plastic bags and or drink bottles don‘t fall apart on us, but not at all great when the same plastic harms wildlife in the sea or in landfill — pictures of the stomachs of dead sea birds clogged with plastic should ring alarm bells, but plastic broken into tiny pieces is a serious problem, and much harder to address.
Addressing this is problematic. For an individual supermarket chain to act means they risk pushing up their costs. It is possible to offset that by appealing to the increasing numbers of environmentally-conscious consumers, but it is still a risk.
But there would be a strong case for legislation over this, so no business has a competitive advantage from ruining the environment in this way. The problem is that, if the British government acts alone over this, it risks putting British business at a disadvantage. In effect, this is the same problem as for an individual business, but pushed up a level.
Recently, an active and experienced Liberal Democrat campaigner challenged me over the party’s messaging on Brexit. He suggested that this was coming across as confused. My first instinct was to defend what we have been doing, but on reflection, I think he has a point. The aim of this article is to ask the question a little more widely.
From the inside
My impression is that the Liberal Democrat parliamentarians and media office have been doing an outstanding job in trying to hold the government to account in the mess over Brexit, and of making people aware of this. I was in the debate at Conference which affirmed the Liberal Democrat policy of seeking a referendum on the deal, and can see the wisdom of this, but can also see that it can need explaining — which is a hostage to fortune.
From the outside
But, I’ve had people on street stalls ask me what our position is before signing a petition for a people’s vote on the final deal. I’ve had people read that text and still want to check that this means they are signing something against Brexit. That comes across as a measure of the anxiety and paralysis Brexit is inducing.
The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal has sparked outrage, but are we in danger of responding in a way that actually does what Putin wants, the British Government needs, and helps no-one?
The bare facts of the story seem straightforward. Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia were found seriously ill in Salisbury on 4 March 2018, suffering from the effects of a nerve agent Novochok, known to be made in Russia. Skripal is a former spy, in the UK after a spy swap. The strong implication is that Russia has a motive to seek his death, and used means closely linked to them (which looks as if they were not trying to hide their tracks).
The ensuing controversy has seen the death linked to Russia, with the implication that there is confidential intelligence information to support this assertion. There are parallels with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. For its part, Russia denies the claims and has taken the issue first to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN Security Council.
The storm has seen over 100 Russian diplomats expelled across the world, and the UK shift from adversarial language towards the EU to seeking help in a diplomatic response.
One answer is horror: there’s a compelling case for asking the British public whether the Brexit that is negotiated is what they actually want — not least because the dishonest and contradictory messages from the Leave campaign mean that many who voted Leave will find a large gap between the deal that is offered and what they thought they had voted for.
But an Exit From Brexit means healing the deep divisions that it has exposed, not just a narrow vote the other way in a referendum. That means bringing across many of those who voted Leave, and engaging with why they voted that way. Many voted Leave out of fear, and they still have reason to be afraid. That is particularly the case in the Labour heartlands.
Recently, various pro-Brexit voices have been claiming that the Good Friday Agreement is dead. There is certainly a big danger of it being a casualty of Brexit, but it is certainly not something to be sacrificed. Instead, it’s worth thinking about why it is under strain — in order to save it.
The Good Friday Agreement, signed on 10 April 1998, was a remarkable achievement. After an extended peace process, which had built up sufficient trust to make a breakthrough possible, it finally brought a way to share power between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, ending decades of armed conflict.
The problem was, and is, that there is legitimacy in the claims and the stories on both sides. Finding a route to the point when both communities can co-exist peacefully is the sanest way to peace. My reading of the story is that the fundamental change that made this possible was that the UK and Eire had both been in the EU for long enough for people to get used to it.
It is possible for communities to co-exist on a day-to-day basis, but the fundamental question which is hard to fudge is “on which side will you be if there is a war?” In other words, “Will you fight for Dublin or for London?”. Peace is possible when there has been enough peace and stability for long enough to mean that question is not at the back of people’s minds.
On 26 February, Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech saying that Labour favoured remaining in customs union with the EU. The week leading up to that was dominated by said an absurd, untrue, and ultimately retracted, allegation that he had spied for Czechoslovakia. It seems like a testing of absurdity on the way to a wise position on Europe.
In the foreground was the media storm which ended with Jeremy Corbyn winning an apology and payout from Tory MP Ben Bradley over his “Wholly untrue communist spy tweet”.
This is so absurd that the question it raises is “Why on earth did anyone believe it?”
In the middle of the storm, one comment caught my ear — Jeremy Corbyn saying that he had spoken with Czech diplomats because he wanted to hear both sides in the Cold War. An individual backbench MP won’t have had a huge effect, but advocating peace rather than war, and talking with the other side rather than demonising them, sounds like the conduct of a wise statesman.
So, why has this story blown up now? There is a political answer, and a below-the-surface one.
I was out today with a group of people from East Herts for Europe in Ware. In among the leafleting and gathering 161 signatures on a petition for referendum on the terms of Brexit (once the government actually works out what those are, and actually manages some meaninful negotiations). There were some fascinating conversations.
In the referendum campaign, I was focussed on Cambridge, but friends in Hertford and Stortford talk of street stalls getting significant opposition. The case for Europe was worth making and clearly needed to be made. The constituency was the closest in the country to 50:50.
Now the feel is different. It’s unwise to draw any conclusions from those who didn’t want to stop and talk, but conversations today were rich. Some shed light on people’s real worries over Brexit, and others on their attachment to it.
Messages of support for Remain
There were people who stopped to thank us for being visible. There were stories of people feeling gutted by the result and of people from elsewhere in the EU feeling unwelcome since the referendum.
A few months after the referendum I gave a conference paper where I suggested that Europe has been so important to the UK for so long that the referendum and its result had had a profound effect on the British political system, leaving it struggling to cope. The week of the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos has provided a striking example of this.
The systemic problem
In the background of that paper was the thought that stable systems need some form of containment. That applies at lots of levels, from a small child feeling safe in the containment of its mother’s arms, through to people feeling an anxiety over immigration feeling the need for a country’s borders to be enforced to make them feel safe. Containment is particularly important when people feel vulnerable. It can be about actual physical needs, but is much more about managing anxiety. Some of this will seem irrational, but it makes sense if it is thought of as managing anxieties that are hard to express. Immigration is a good example because the economic evidence that it helps the economy, boosts living standards and doesn’t cost people their jobs doesn’t communicate at the same level as the raw emotional fears in people for whom life is uncomfortably fragile. Continue reading “A snapshot of the chaos of Brexit”
Recently a friend and Liberal Democrat activist showed me an email from Labour Remain — formed at the start of 2018 and claiming significant support. This comes on the back of a survey showing that 78% of Labour members disagree with Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to a referendum on the terms of Brexit How should Liberal Democrats respond?
Brexit is a profound threat to British values, the economy and the very integrity of the United Kingdom. In that sense it needs us all to pull together.
The country is in a crisis. We have been so intertwined with the rest of Europe, for so long, that the referendum result has had a deeply destructive effect on public life. Parliament seems paralised. Andrew Adonis has written of a Brexit-induced “nervous breakdown” in Whitehall. The Conservatives and Labour seem massively dysfunctional. There are stories of moderate councillors in both parties being de-selected. Most of the pro-Remain majority in the Commons is silent or vanquished. My excitement over the formation of Labour Remain is more than a little tempered by the lurch to the Left in their recent National Executive Committee elections and stories of MPs being threatened with de-selection. Faced with Brexit, ths has all the wisdom of re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. We need to think differently.